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A history of Pittsburgh Light Up Night

Downtown to glow with holiday spirit” read a headline in the Nov. 18, 1960, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, promoting the coming “Preview of Christmas” spectacular.

Ten seconds before 6 p.m. on Nov. 21, 1960, a countdown began on Mount Washington complete with Santa Claus to usher in the holiday shopping season.

At exactly 6 p.m., “switches will yank on the lights,” the Post-Gazette wrote.

And, thus, a holiday season Light Up Night was born!

The first Light Up Night was a “harbinger,” the PG said on Nov. 22 of that year.

The Pittsburgh Press shared this photo, below, of Santa in its Nov. 22 edition.

The Golden Triangle Association and the Building Owners and Managers Association sponsored an amateur photographer contest for the best photos from the first Light Up Night. Winners received savings bonds.

And, yes, the organizers used a “feminine Santa Claus,” as the PG noted, to promote the event. Patty Cratty was her real name.

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of Pittsburgh’s first Light Up Night, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership said national celebrities would come to Pittsburgh to “flip” the ceremonial switch to light Downtown.

“In actuality, building workers physically threw switches in the electrical control rooms of many buildings,” the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership wrote.

Light Up Night celebrations ran through the 1960s and early ’70s, adding Three Rivers Stadium and other events along the way.

But an energy crisis in the early 1970s meant no celebration for nine years.

Mayor Richard Caliguiri relit the celebration in 1982, proclaiming in a news release that the city has a new skyline “deserves to be highlighted.”

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership says WPXI extended an evening newscast to broadcast the lighting of the Horne’s tree.

Perhaps in one of those “true Pittsburgh fashion” things, Light Up Night was traditionally held on Monday nights until 1990, when it moved to Fridays. In 2021, the event will move to Saturdays.

Despite the resurgence of Light Up Night in the early 1980s, some major Downtown department stores were nearing their final years in the 1980s. And, in the years since 1960, shopping malls had continued growing, leaving Downtown shopping districts in an eventual state of panic.

Gimbels closed in 1986.

Horne’s closed in 1994.

Kaufmann’s closed in 2005 and became Macy’s, which closed its Downtown location in 2015.

Those closures didn’t stop Light Up Night or crowds from ringing in the holidays.

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership estimates that 25,000 people celebrated Light Up Night in 1997. That number hit 500,000 by 2016.

Though no event was held in 2020 due to the ongoing pandemic, the Horne’s tree was still lit, and other holiday season decorations still lit Downtown streets.